Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Sandbox versus the Story

Where does your game fit?

The Old School Primer lists a series of identifiers that distinguish old school games from their modern descendants - precepts like "Rulings not Rules", and "Player Skill over Character Abilities", and so on, as hallmarks of old school games.  It's a good starting point, but it doesn't articulate for me why old school adventures and campaigns are so radically different in structure from what gets published today, outside some OSR guys.  So there's more to it than just being rules-lite.  There's a whole paradigm of exploration (and by necessity, player initiated adventure) that differentiates today's adventures from the stuff I read from the 70's and how they play at the table.  I've read some adventures recently, published to be "old school game compatible", that I wouldn't consider old school style and it got me thinking there's more to it than just using an old set of rules.

The Sandbox vs the Story Adventure
The sandbox adventure involves areas to explore - large hex crawls, sprawling dungeons, site-based locations.  It could be star sectors and planets, like in Traveler.  The sandbox is usually supplemented by lots of random tables - either for use in-game (like the D&D wandering monster table) or pre-game - like the Traveler planetary generation systems.  Randomization is the enemy of game balance, so character death can be frequent.  But sandboxes give the players near-universal agency to go and do what they want.

Modern adventures present a series of interconnected scenes, events, or locales, and the characters move from scene to scene as the story develops.  Character is important, and many modern adventures spill ink on back story and motivation.  If the players  deviate from the plot line, it forces the game master to do some serious on-the-spot improvisation for the things the author didn't take into account.  In the D&D space, things like Adventure Paths or linear 4E delves fall into this model.

Some notes on the Diagram:
Classic D&D and it's adventures
Fast, disposable characters, lite-rules, site-based locations, heavy emphasis on exploration - welcome to old school style play.

1E AD&D and adventures
Characters are a little more complicated and detailed, but most AD&D adventures are site-based and still free form.

Dragonlance and later adventures
Detailed characters, pages of back story, story and event-based modules, rail road plots.  stamp: NEW SCHOOL.  Next.

Call of Cthulhu
Disposable characters.  Adventures tend to be a mix of site-based and plot-driven - the later in the publishing history, they more they resemble plotted stories.

Characters are more detailed and intricate than D&D, with lengthy background generated through chargen.  Heavy focus on exploration and randomly generated subsectors, planets, flora and fauna.

World of Darkness
Fairly detailed characters and scene-based stories.  NEW SCHOOL.

3.x and 4E
Intricate characters (feats, skills, and prestiges, oh my!) and scripted adventure paths and delves.

4E has no support for sandboxes or randomization (the system is enslaved by balance) whereas 3.x did have it's outlier publishers - Necro, Goodman - that developed some old-school site-based adventures.

Final thoughts:
What do you think of the thesis that only "Rules-Lite" + "Sandbox Play" = old school gaming, and "Rules-Lite" + "Story-Driven" is not?  Conversely, does anyone feel that when they were playing 3.X but going through a Goodman Adventure or the Necro JG Wilderlands, they were re-living the glory days of their youth?

If there are other modern games that feature quick and easy character generation, scant rules, and a heavy focus on exploration and sandbox play, I'd argue they fit the old school paradigm.  I don't know - something like Mongoose Traveler or the Stars Without Number game, even though chronologically they're modern games.

I just need to come up with some names for the quadrants.


  1. I am perplexed by the fact that you rated WW above Traveller, D&D 2E and AD&D.

    Also by you placing it far out on the plot-line -- in reality, I've seldom played (either side of the screen for a dozen years, o/nWoD) a "plotted" story using that system.

    What my experience tells me is that the Storytelling system has fast chr-gen, is rules light and pretty much table free, and that actual game-play is a lot freer than delve/hack/loot/lvl. By it's nature, it also caters more to roleplayers, and less to munchkins. It almost makes me wonder if you've actually played ST, and if you have, I would've wished that your experience was better.

    Apart from that, I think this is an interesting exercise. But I at least agree that it's New School.

  2. For me, 3.X was a state of mind. Sure, the Paizio modules and adventure paths were clearly new school, but there was nothing to stop a DM and party from indulging in sandbox style play ala Nercomancer Games' Wilderlands supplemant.

    That being said, it was more a NEW SCHOOL game that could be adapted to old school play. It still featured scaled encounters after all -balanced for five characters of equal level. Also, character death was discouraged -at least, random character death due to wandering monsters encounters (also downplayed) or bad dice rolls. It also emphasised the concept of Heroic -as oppossed to mercenary characters- So I still rate it as a New School game.

    Actually, thats the one factor in the Old School-New School axis I think you're missing. New School games (even World of Darkness) encourage the players to believe their characters are somehow special, either due to the supernatural or due to bein heroic. Even a first level 3rd ed character was better than your humdrum peasant, as witnessed by the existence the less powerful NPC classes, for example.

    However, in Old School games the characters are pretty much ordinary working joes trying to make a living -whether by interplanetary trade and exploration or simply by raiding a dungeon. True, there was such a thing as a zero level character in Old School D&D, but a zero level character was still about as effective as a first level fighter (and was one, in fact, in all but name). Hell, a first level mage was just as likely to hit in combat as a first level fighter. There was none of this: "your character has a special destiny and shouldnt die to random dice rolls" nonsense. Characters died from stupid mistakes, bad rolls and sheer dumb luck, with no deux ex machina rescue. Nor did adventurers have the glamerous, near-celebraty status they seem to have by default today.

    Adventurers weren't adored by the masses. Adventurers terrified the masses. Inn's shut up shop, men hid their beautiful duaghters and small children were rushed out of site when these dangerous, anti-establishment, unpredictable (even down-right mad) mercenaries staggered into town. You just never knew what sort of madness they would get up to.

  3. @ Herald.
    You make a good point. If anything, most WoD games I've played in have been sandboxes with several meta-plots running in the background at once, which characters can jump into or avoid as the opportunity arises.

    However, despite having played a number of sandbox WoD games, I still think that the other factors you mention (the emphasis on roleplaying over combat and exploration, for example) make it a New School game. Perhaps it's fair to include WoD in the same category as 3.X?

  4. @Harald - I think you're right that I should move WOD down into the rules-lite quadrant. I played about a year's worth of Masquerade before we switched to a Dark Ages game and played through the Transylvania Chronicles story arc, so I ended up with about 3 years using the system. It has a heavy focus on character and character background and plotted scenes, and less on presenting environments for exploration.

    It's hard to avoid a sense of being judgmental when classifying games, because I've had plenty of excellent game experiences with plotted story games; the experiences are qualitatively different.

  5. I would tend to agree. I have argued in the past that Champions is New School for all the reasons you describe here — heavy rules, detailed character creation and heavy use of plots. It makes me wonder if genre isn't also a factor because, despite its relatively simple creation rules and heavy use of random tables, it is difficult to play V&V without a plot...

    At no time did I feel like I was revisiting the glory days while running a Goodman Games 3E adventure. Even if I wasn't playing 3E, all of those monster stats and DC rolls for traps etc. just got in the way of running the adventure. This is why I so appreciated their 1ed conversions, which I have found much more pleasurable to run.

  6. Addendum to comment #1: Then again, none of the groups I've played with have used a written module since we started shaving regularly, so my mileage my vary.

    ACK! WTF? 3.X!? Seriously though, I think that is very much like comparing apples and oranges.

    My experience with 3.X, and pretty much every D&D-derivative, is that the concept of levels will place strict guidelines on the game-play. While some are more rampant (*cough-4E-cough), a low lvl party is a low lvl party, and a high HD monster is a high HD monster. 3.X tried to jump on the New School bandwagon, but landed with one foot in each camp. It can be played like a New School game, but it will still be lvl-based either way you cut it.

    Clarification: My definition of New School is open game-play, non-linear chr-progression, and focus on roleplaying over chr-advancement.

  7. Erk. Just re-read my first two posts. Talk about pretentious writing: "however, that being said, perhaps it's fair to include."

    That's it, I'm never posting a comment straight after finishing work ever again. At least not till I've "switched off" and gone back to being a human being as opposed to a report-writing machine.

    Also, Harold is spot on. Comparing 3.X and WoD is pretty much comparing chalk and cheese in most respects. But I still think they're pretty similar in terms of their flexibility when it comes to style of play (sandbox vs story-driven for example).

  8. I was actually going to write up a blog entry in regards to story vs sandbox and how the two can co-exist in a game without being railroady.

  9. I was actually going to write up a blog entry in regards to story vs sandbox and how the two can co-exist in a game without being railroady.

    looking forward to that. i am always amazed that people insist that this not possible.

  10. I can't say that the complexity axis should have anything to do with it. Any scheme which relegates Chivalry & Sorcery or Aftermath to "New School" is a broken scheme, in my opinion. I think that the single most important characteristic differentiating New from Old School gaming is the direction from which story comes. If story informs the action, then it is New School. If story derives from the action, then it is Old School.

  11. @Faoladh: yeah, that's why I haven't labeled the quadrants specifically - lower left is old school to me; is upper right? That's why I asked the question about folks that used 3.x sandbox style.

    @RW: I agree that you can use old-style rules and run a DM/plot heavy style of game. It follows that even a sandbox game will have periods where the DM might need to exert a bit more control - for instance, when the players aren't picking up on any plot hooks or making decisions (like newer players).

    I know I tend to introduce events and might build an event schedule of things that will happen, regardless of player interaction. That's drifting towards a story-driven game at times.

  12. Yeah, if the events will happen regardless of anything that the PCs do, that's definitely driven by story. On the other hand, timelines of what will happen if the PCs do not influence the events seem like part of a sandbox to me. Sure, there is a nominal plot involved, but it's still a setting where the choices made by the players can have a real effect on events. It's not a novel written by the Referee, it's a collaborative effort by the players in a setting of the Referee's (or whoever's) devising.

  13. That's why events are a grey area... if Kingdom A and B are moving towards war (and the DM has a timeline of the escalation) that's information - part of the sandbox. If the players can act on the information, diffuse or escalate the war, that's also right in line with sandbox gaming. if the war needs to happen to advance other elements of the DM's timeline, that's a rail road.

    I try to present events, let the players act on it or ignore it, and let them go from there.

    Really - the finer points of running sandbox games (while empowering player collaboration) is still a fertile area for folks to discuss how they do it.

  14. I agree! One area that could be examined is found in the Top Secret game, and best exemplified by the sample adventure in the Top Secret Companion. It consists of a set of relationships diagrammed out between various NPCs. I think that I found out about it at Grognardia (though it could have been somewhere else), but I quickly hunted down a copy of the Companion (which I had never actually known existed, oddly). There's also an example of just the sort of timeline we're discussing, called "Chronology of Events". It's introduced as follows:

    "This detailed timetable tells what should happen at specific times during Project Snailpace if all goes according to plan. Included in this timeline are vehicle departure times, vehicle arrival times, communication schedules, and enemy agent meeting times. It is the player characters' job to disrupt this timetable so that Project Snailpace does not succeed."

  15. Couple of Brit OSR systems for you to consider.

    Advanced Fighting Fantasy - very very rules light indeed, but operates on an extremely linear pathway that pays homage to fantasy B-movies in its default adventure construction. Bottom right. I consider it old school largely due to its age, pedigree and influence on the British gamers of the 80s.

    Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay - cludgy and random in its mechanics, lots of adventure pathways but also lots of sandboxy "a Thing is happening, what will you do about it" elements as well. More or less dead centre, erring on the side of rules-heavy if anywhere.

  16. I think perhaps there's a flaw in your thinking. It doesn't seem to me that sandbox and story are opposites. Sandbox and railroad, yes, but story is not (necessarily) the same as railroad.

    For example, I used to play in an old school game, back before the OSR took off. It had started with white box back in 1979 or 1980, and had been going for ten years when I joined.

    The DM had set a pattern: 3 or 4 sessions of old-fashioned dungeon crawl alternating with 3 or 4 session "story games."

    The story games were all about people and their desires and what they'd do to get them. They were location based, and the location was stocked with characters with specific goals and the means to act on them. Sometimes, these were the PCs.

    The DM would figure out what had been going on before the PCs showed up, and once we did, she let things run. NPCs would make decisions that moved them toward their goals (they hoped), and we either got involved or tried not to get sucked in.

    No rails, no pre-set scenes. But serious story. Think of it as a social sandbox, where in-character goals were the driving force instead of XP and loot.

  17. How's this for a dodge? Rather than flawed thinking on my part, perhaps there is more than one way to structure a sandbox and let the game be player-driven instead of DM-driven?

    This goes along with FrDave's idea that genre might be a limitation. Whenever I've run a super hero game myself, for instance, it's always had strong narrative direction by the DM. Is there a way to structure a sandbox for a different genre? Your idea of a 'social sandbox' implies it.

    It's an idea worth exploring. Sandbox gaming is one of the things that makes old-time D&D awesome that I'd love to be able to port into other genres.

  18. I would place Dragonlance and WoD further apart by moving WoD towards the middle.

    The early Dragonlance modules were pretty much a strait up railroad: before you've even rolled up your PC (if you're not using one of the pre-made story characters!), the tracks are already laid and the path is already set.

    Most WoD games I've either been involved in or heard about, though, didn't tend to work this way.

    While there did certainly tend to be "Plotted Stories", the tendency generally seemed that these stories tended to be constructed specifically based on the characters the players bring to the table, and each subsequent chapter plotted (or at least modified) based on the results of the last. Not quite as free form as a full-on sandbox, but the Storyteller was usually at least constructing hooks and plot threads based specifically on your characters background, so the ammount of player influence is still a lot higher than the old 1E Dragonlance adventure path.

  19. faoladh said: "timelines of what will happen if the PCs do not influence the events [...]"

    That is pretty much my GMing credo. For my part, I find straight up sandboxing just as trite as railroading. Both have their place in the game, but there has to be a balance.

    I am a game master, but what I do is directing the communal storytelling that is roleplaying. If the setting is just a playground for the players, and the GM is nothing but an ineffective game-engine, I'd rather be reading a book than be on either side of that screen.

    But then again, I'm firmly New School ;)

  20. Beedo, I don't think that's a dodge, but I don't buy it, either. I'll admit, part of this is because I'm a big fan of stories, and of making stories with my friends, and I'm uncomfortable with the way "story" sometimes seems to be an obscenity in the OSR.

    Beyond that, sandbox seems passive to me. Reactive. Stuff may be going on in the parts of the map the characters aren't exploring, but it will never matter unless the characters go there. 'Cause, if the orcs the players have been not noticing (because they're off on the other side of the sandbox) do anything to demand attention (like, attack Town), then it becomes story.

    I guess that's the distinction I want to draw between story and railroad. Story is an aggressive engagement of the characters. It's a situation that they ignore at their peril, but they're free to do anything with the situation, including try to ignore it. Story demands attention, but does not dictate action.

    Maybe we need a third axis? Sandbox-Railroad, Rules lite-Rules heavy, and Story-Meaningless?

  21. Harald said: "For my part, I find straight up sandboxing just as trite as railroading. Both have their place in the game"

    Here is the only thing I disagree with in what you wrote. Railroading has no place in the game. Player actions should always have a real effect. To do otherwise is to cheat the players. The Referee should never include a scene that must happen. All scenes should develop from the interaction of Referee timelines, NPC choices, and player choice. Any time the players are forced into a scene is a time that the game has changed from being a roleplaying game. It has become, instead, and for that moment, a traditional work of fiction. If I want traditional fiction, then I will read a book by a good author.

  22. Uncle Dark: I think that it mostly has to do with the terminology. When most of us think "story" in this context, we are thinking (apparently) of what you are calling "railroad".

    It's as I said above, the critical distinction is where story comes from. If story comes from the GM, then that is not a good thing. Story should derive from events, not events happening because the story demands it.

  23. faoladh, what's the difference between "While you're working on the puzzle box in the center of the room, a secret door (the one you missed while searching) opens up and orcs pour into the room" and "While you're in the tavern planning your next foray into the catacombs, Bob's sister comes in, bruised and in tears and saying something about being attacked by her brother in law?"

    Both are situations introduced by the DM. Both leave the players free to react to the situation any way they like. Both are bad forms of RP, by the definition you've given.

    "Story should derive from events, not events happening because the story demands it." Six of one...

    The way the players resolve one event will sometimes dictate another. They fail to capture the bandit leader, who has been established to be a vengeful SOB, he will attack them later. How is that not events that happen because the story demands it?

    Ultimately, as long as the DM isn't saying to the players, "No, you guys have to go here and do this," what's the problem?

  24. Uncle Dark - both your examples (the sneak attack orcs or the battered sister) would be fair game to spring on players in any sandbox. The orc attack is a natural consequence of failing to find the secret door; let's say the battering is a consequence of a bad marriage.

    But the sandbox doesn't require a certain response by the players to continue the adventure. The orc thing might require a response, but if Bob is callous to his sister's suffering, there's nothing stopping him from heading into the hills with the boys and looting a tomb. The structure of many modern (published) adventures forecloses the players from ignoring plot hooks.

    In my own game, the players have completely ignored a war between zombies and the civilized lands they left (ie, my story...) But those events still happened, and whenever they return from the mountains, they'll get to see the current state of things.

  25. Beedo - Sure, the written adventures limit player response to what's within the story. I don't want to think how thick that module would have to be if it covered everything the players could do that wasn't the "main story."

  26. Uncle Dark: "Both are bad forms of RP, by the definition you've given."

    I disagree. Those derive from player actions, or are hooks, not scenes that the players have no choices in. Bob's sister perhaps comes closest, but the players can still make the choice to help or not. What they choose will affect events.

    Bad scenarios include scenes that the Referee can move around, so that no matter which way the players go they arrive at the same event. If choices are meaningless, so that the same thing happens no matter what the players choose to do, then that is bad.

    "Six of one..."

    No, it's not. The difference is important.

    "The way the players resolve one event will sometimes dictate another."

    Sure. But it happens because of the way that the players resolve it, not because the Referee has some plot that she wants to forward.

    "How is that not events that happen because the story demands it?"

    Because it happens due to the choices of the players.

    "Ultimately, as long as the DM isn't saying to the players, "No, you guys have to go here and do this," what's the problem?"

    Right. Exactly so. As I said, we seem to be working from a problem of difference in terminology, not difference in concept. However, the New School games suggest techniques that are very much in opposition to the principles we are discussing here.

    As Beedo points out, the problem situations include scenes where, if the players choose to go right instead of left, then they die (to pick the most simplistic case). Especially so if they are aware that going right instead of left will kill them. The linear dungeons of 4E are another example. The players have no choices once they embark on the scenario - they have the meaningless choice to go forward or back, but each encounter must occur in order. Seriously, if I wanted that, I'd be playing a computer game, which can at least do the paperwork overhead for me, even if I can't make any meaningful choices.

  27. Uncle Dark: So, you haven't seen any Old School adventures, then? Seriously, look at G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. It is entirely dedicated to offering an environment in which different stories can develop from the situation.

  28. faoladh: I grew up playing D&D in the mid-eighties, starting with the Holmes box set and B1: In Search of the Unknown. So, yeah, I've seen old school adventures. :)

    Part of why I'm engaging here is because I have a love-hate relationship with old school D&D, and I'm trying to figure it out.

    What I meant was that providing a completely open sandbox is beyond the scope of most published adventures.

    D&D4 takes it way too far. That's less D&D than it is a series of linked mini battles... Which isn't bad, if that's what you want.

    I was running a 4e game, recently, that was structured much more like an old school game. We ran into problems because player powers in 4e are so specialized to the linear set-piece structure that there really wasn't much of any mechanical distinction between the PCs except in combat.

  29. Uncle Dark: OK, I guess I am unclear on what you mean by "completely open sandbox", then, since I mentioned G1 (and, by extension, the rest of the G series), you mentioned B2, and there are plenty of examples of open hexcrawls out there that one can find for free or for inexpensive prices (I'm fond of Savage Swords of Athanor, but I like the science-fantasy and dying earth styles). For instance, try out Blackmarsh. It's not perfect (very little ever is), but it's good.

    I mentioned the Top Secret adventure "Operation: MELTDOWN", found in the Top Secret Companion, above. It's another instance of open design, though a little more tightly structured, in keeping with the particular play style of Top Secret, which focuses on "missions" with discrete goals - a genre convention. It's not story-focused, though. It is events-focused, from which, in retrospect, one could tell a story (but one does not have to do so - story doesn't have to come into it at all).

    Re: 4E, yeah, I agree that if it is what one wants, then go for it. It's not for me.

  30. Sorry, I meant to write "you mentioned B1".

  31. I think that we are having definition problems in a number of ways. Take B1, for example. Say the PCs get to the entrance, set off the magic mouths, and then decide to head out and march north, away from the dungeon. The module doesn't cover that, but a sandbox campaign must. All I was saying was that a location-based adventure is necessarily limited to the location, and the module can't cover the whole world of what the players might try or where they might go.

    I'm still not clear on what you mean when you say "story." Could you expand on it?

    Of course the mission is a story. My agent went there, encountered these people, did the job, and escaped. That's a story, at least as I understand it.

  32. Beedo: But the sandbox doesn't require a certain response by the players to continue the adventure.

    In the pure sandbox, nothing happens without the players choosing to instigate an action, or if the GM rolls a random encounter. If the GM were to start hinting too much about a given scenario, the hardcore sandboxer will claim railroading.

    Besides what you're describing is called "bad GM'ing," not railroading. I've seen a sandbox fall apart because the players didn't generate an interesting plot. People got bored with the grind, and with the monotony of it all.

    faoldah: The Referee should never include a scene that must happen.

    I beg to differ. If I judge that I need to rule an action for the plot everybody is interested in to continue, I will. Look at it as making an omelet. It is not the perfect solution, but it is fast and easy, therefore it will stay in my tool-box for when I'm tired or unfocussed, and just need a stop-gap to bring us all to where we want to be. I look at both SB and RR as storytelling tools. Neither works on it's own. I'm not a professional, not infallible, and without a staff, hence my need for certain less-than-ideal techniques every once and again.

    Craftsman A knows all his tools, and where and when to use them. Craftsman B believes one tool is all he needs. Which would you employ?

    Beedo, don't misunderstand me now, but I'll use your Strahd-incident to illustrate a point. If killing Strahd in a random is what makes a sandbox awesome, what happens when you've run out of legendary NPC's and monsters. Start over again, only now with Strahd alive and kicking, because the board has simply been set again?

    Lastly, a pure sandbox is probably as rare as a pure railroad. They may both be slightly amusing for a few hours, but nether will sustain creativity for long. I think a good GM uses both these tools subconsciously and surreptitiously, and and a good player will overlook certain glitches in the Matrix, while contributing creatively and constructively. These campaigns are the ones people tend to laud above all others.

    To sum it up, I'll put it in five words: it's not black and white.

  33. Uncle Dark: That doesn't invalidate the published adventure, it only indicates that a published adventure doesn't encompass an entire setting (which is as it should be).

    When I use the term "story", I may mean any of several things, which should be clear from context, primarily a) a pre-designed plot which must occur in order for the game to be accounted a success, or b) a description of events that have already occurred. The first is presented to the players, the second is created by the players after events that occur in the game.

    Some examples of techniques that I think are mistakes in roleplaying, but which are useful in other entertainment media (and this is not exhaustive): "Boss monsters", cutscenes, climaxes, act structures, and so on. This, by the way, does not mean that in retrospect some of these things might occur, or be imposed on the narrative of the stochastic events, but rather that using these concepts as organizing principles is a mistake.

    Harald: "In the pure sandbox, nothing happens without the players choosing to instigate an action, or if the GM rolls a random encounter."

    I disagree that this describes a "pure" sandbox. It describes one approach to sandbox play, but not the only one (and not my own preferred approach). In this thread, I've noted several elements of sandboxes which have existed since the earliest days, including but not limited to timelines, relationship maps, and communication networks. The salient feature of a sandbox is that the decisions of the players have real effect on the setting, and are not subjugated to the needs of a predetermined plot.

    It is, I'd say, black-and-white in this way: either the Referee sits down at the table with a belief about what "should" happen in the game or she doesn't. I don't think that preconception of the game is helpful (and note specifically the difference of this from a timeline*), and I do think that it actively detracts from the experience.

    *I suppose that I should probably discuss this briefly. A timeline does not place any restrictions on what decisions the players can make. The players may choose to confront the mastermind of the timeline or they may choose another route to success. There is no pre-scripted scene involving a necessary confrontation between the mastermind of the timeline and the players. A preconceived game includes the assumption that the players will maneuver their characters in such a way that the mastermind will be confronted, and that scene must occur to resolve the situation either positively or negatively.

  34. Uncle Dark: I almost forgot. Yes, a mission can be described by a story about the mission. The mission is not, however, a story. It is a series of stochastic events that are governed by weighted random number generation. We can use this to build narratives, but this is not the narrative itself.

  35. Interesting discussion.

    Sandbox needs some sort of story, even if it's simple - events need to happen independent of the PC's, unless its a very strange game.

    Anyway, my games of choice are Dragon Warriors (rules lightish, with a strong setting ,so not true sandbox) and Rolemaster (lightish version, rules heavy but setting free = as sandbox as you want).

  36. Pukako: Events that occur in the game world aren't necessarily stories. A story is a narrative of events, not the events themselves. As I've said, a timeline is not a preconceived plot. It's a framework with which the players' characters can interact. After that interaction, narratives ("stories") about the interaction can be constructed to describe to others the events that actually occur. Like stories in the real world, different characters will describe different narratives of the same events, as each operates from its own point of view, with its own biases, and with its own preferences.

  37. I still think story is wonderful and does not have to involve railroading. If the GM lovingly creates an affective hook

    that the players bite down upon and yearn to conclude then all of the players choices lead to the desired conclusion. They will zealously fight through the dungeon, to face Demonstar The Voidcaller or die in the attempt.

    The key here is to get them to bite and not want to let go.

  38. Anathematician - I agree that there is a 'social contract' type argument to be made regarding a strongly plotted story. If the players all agree, it can be a great style game (providing the DM actually has a good story to tell).

    The type of player collaboration in the game is different - folks would argue adventure paths are a bit more passive vehicles to get you to the next combat - but that player creativity usually emerges through character background stories (to engage with the DM's story) or character optimization, if it's a combat-heavy game.

  39. I'm kinda curious. How did 2nd edition score higher than World of darkness in terms of being all about the storyline and less free form sandbox?

  40. 2eDM - I was permanently scarred by the Time of Troubles! The 2E core rules are kinda like what 1E should have been (with editing) but then TSR went down the splatbook road; I also feel like most modules I've read from the period are plot/story vs sandbox. 2E is one of those heavier rules sets that can be played old school, even if the published stuff put out by the company was going in a different direction.

  41. Ah, okay. I feel the same way regarding the time of troubles(and forgotten realms in general). I'll admit, I never actually bought much in the way of modules. My groups and I always tended to buy setting info, which tended to make our games more sandbox(though exploration was more on a local scale rather than seeing what was just over the next mountain).

  42. Faoladh, thank you. I think I understand where you're coming from a bit better. I don't think I'll ever accept such a limited definition of story, though.

    When I think of story, I'm thinking of meaning. Context, history, and current events. Story is becoming a part of these, and (to whatever extent is appropriate for he power of the characters) steering these events.

    I long ago gave up on thinking of story in RPGs as a classic framework (either the six-step introduction through denouement or the 3-act versions). I tend to think in terms of, who are the main players in this bit of the world's history? What do they want? Where do their plans cross paths with the PCs?

    What I do setting up the campaign actually fits pretty neatly with techniques in Beedo's sandbox triangle post. I'm just prepping history and NPCs instead of dungeon levels and hex maps.

  43. Uncle Dark: As I refine the terms I use, I find better ways to describe what I mean. Let's try a different tack.

    "Story" is a narrative describing events. The events themselves are contextless, and therefore lack inherent meaning. By placing them into a context, we provide meaning to a series of events. I think that we're on the same page here, since I am mainly restating what I think you are saying with a small addition of my own.

    There are two kinds of context which can embed events: context that describes events that have occurred, and context that determines which events occur.

    What I object to, then, is not "story", per se, but preconceived story. That is, I think that it is a mistake for a Referee to sit down to the table with an image of a particular scene or scenes which must occur for the session to be accounted successful. This can be as railroad-y as the worst, most inevitable iron rails, or as loose as saying that the players must engage in a particular confrontation as the only means of resolving a situation. Either way, it subverts the autonomy of the players.

    A roleplaying game is not a novel. It has its own strengths and weaknesses, while the novel has different ones. It is unlikely that a particular Referee is going to be able to successfully compete with a novel on its own turf (and if she can, she should probably be writing novels, which pay money), so it behooves her to play to the strengths of a roleplaying game. The primary strength is that the players have largely autonomous control over the general direction of events, within the constraints of the world in which the characters exist. When that control is removed, by bending the events to fit a preconceived story for instance, then the Referee is failing and moving the game toward being a novel instead.

    Judging by your last paragraph, you are prepping a sandbox. There's no single way to do so, as has been noted throughout this thread. There are many different techniques of developing an environment in which players can maneuver characters without external control (as opposed to in-game influence or the constraints of the game/world rules) by the Referee.

    All of that said, of course, different groups will have different tolerances and expectations of how far to include or avoid preconceived scenes. Some groups prefer them as they may perceive them as reducing effort by the Referee (who may, in such games, take on the role of Game Master instead), at the expense of removing autonomy from the players. For myself, I think that such scenes add to the Referee's workload rather than reducing it (I think of the sandbox with "just-in-time" design as being the lazy Referee's best friend), and don't like such preconceptions.

  44. Faoladh: I used to be gung-ho for making games have the same structure and pacing of a novel or a movie, but I've found that while it's neat when such a structure evolves out of play, it's usually too much effort for too little good to try and force it. If it's any good at all.

    RPGs are not novels, or movies, or TV series. There are useful analogies that can be drawn, but not a 1:1 identity.

    I see one thing where we differ. You seem to be using "story" to refer to a finished product, and I am using it to refer to the process of creating the finished project.

    We agree that a referee who has a pre-ordained story ought to be writing a novel instead. I don't think that means that *no* scene should be worked out ahead of time, just that the ref/GM should not be so invested in things going as planned that the fun of play-in-the-moment gets squeezed out.

    Personally, I have a difficulty improvising unless I know where I'm going. I'm happy changing direction as needed, but I tend to flounder about without the sense of overall coherence that having some imagined end scene gives me.

    Again, if the players hare off in an entirely different direction, that's good. It just means I have to imagine what's off over there before I can (with confidence) go with it.

    Personally, I don't hold player autonomy as the highest good in gaming. Part of the DM/GM/Ref's job is providing for continuity of the world, part of which is tone and genre convention. Which sometimes means saying, "Yes, that's perfectly plausible... But it doesn't fit. No."

    Of course, I tend to play games where the players have more input into the content of the world beyond their characters than is usually allowed in Old School play, so it may be a matter of trading some autonomy in one area for more input in another.

    I'd be interested in hearing the difference between a referee and a GM, as you see it.

  45. "You seem to be using "story" to refer to a finished product, and I am using it to refer to the process of creating the finished project."

    To me, a story is a description of events that occur. Playing a roleplaying game is participating in a series of events. "Participating in" is not "describing". An external observer can create a story about a series of events, but only the participants can, to be tautological about it, participate in them.

    "Part of the DM/GM/Ref's job is providing for continuity of the world, part of which is tone and genre convention. Which sometimes means saying, "Yes, that's perfectly plausible... But it doesn't fit. No.""

    That is precisely what I mean by "within the constraints of the world in which the characters exist".

    I'm lazy. I don't like to develop scenes that aren't going to happen, as it wastes my time that could be put to better use doing some other element of prep-work. If having such possible, but possibly not, scenes is something that helps you, that's fine. As long as it's not something that you contrive to come about regardless of the decisions of the players, then we're even in accord. It's when the players' choices are merely illusory that we would part company.

    Example: I've seen mooted a technique by which the players can choose to go in various directions in a dungeon, choosing left or right or whatever, but the GM takes pre-designed encounters in whatever order makes sense to her and places them dynamically in the rooms that the players therefore go to. This is wrong to me, as the players have no real choice as a result. No matter what choices they make, arbitrarily or based on data or any other way, they will undergo the same sequence that was pre-planned by the GM.

    "I'd be interested in hearing the difference between a referee and a GM, as you see it."

    It's not a hard and fast distinction, and my usage is not really systematic. Generally, though, I think of a "Referee" as being entirely impartial and disinterested in outcome* (some people like the term "Judge" instead), while "Game Master" has implications of control that I don't feel should be reinforced.

    *By the way, "disinterest in outcome" does not mean that such a Referee must be uninterested in the game. The reference is to a lack of "fudging" and other coercive metagame techniques.

  46. It's important to keep in mind that techniques used to run the game may vary week to week. For instance, the player's exploits may be such that a nearby ruler sends messages to them to attend. He wishes them to undertake a mission.

    On the one hand, there is the free choice to decline the local Baron (and perhaps be branded outlaws).

    On the other, his social standing is such that if the players want to continue to have free action within this part of the sandbox, they almost need to comply.

    Is the DM becoming a railroader, or is the Baron's attention a natural consequence of their fame? It could be both or either - and maybe the DM uses this "trick" just to get the group started down a path the DM finds interesting at that moment. And yet despite the strong nudge, the players can still say no.

  47. Right, the players have to operate within the constraints of the setting. Social issues are part of the setting.

    The players in a sandbox always have options when receiving such an invitation - they can decline with extreme prejudice, they can send regrets, they can ignore it, they can otherwise respond. The issue is not "free action", they never have that - at the very least there are limits to what the characters can attempt, or succeed at, built into the game rules, but there are also social rules built into any well-designed setting. The characters do have to take the consequences of their choices, whether those consequences are perceived as "good" or "bad" or otherwise, or else their choices are meaningless.

    The difference between the example you give and the railroader's rails is that the latter takes away real choice (and the consequences thereof). No matter what choices the players want to make, they have to follow the rails to a predetermined conclusion. In the former, though, the players can make decisions that affect their characters and the setting. Those effects might be ones that the players do not wish to occur, but they are the logical consequence of the choices made.

    Basically, what I'm saying is that if the players do not have the freedom to make mistakes, then they don't have any freedom at all. Kinda like real life.

  48. I'm thinking that most of our disagreements are more based in how to talk about play than in how to play, if you follow.

    Sounds like the hard line here is that the ref should never tell the players what their characters do, feel, or choose (unless some in-game effect like Charm Person or whatever is in effect), yes?

    Another may be that the dice have the final say, and boring/un-fun random results are a fair price for exciting/fun ones?

    As an aside, I am a big fan of the difference between "disinterested" and "uninterested." Words, despite what you may have heard on the internet, do have specific meanings.

  49. How would one determine that something is going to be fun or un-fun in advance of it happening? Fun is not science, no matter how much people try to reduce it to such.

    Dice are surprising, giving us things we don't necessarily know we want. Think about another weighted random result upon which we build narratives, sports. The Phillies have the worst record in baseball (an all-time winning ratio of 0.469). Losing in baseball is, at least nominally, un-fun. However, the Phillies still have a strong fan base, so there is some fun being had despite what the science of fun would say. The Cubs have gone over a century without winning the World Series, but yet they maintain a fan base - one that even takes a perverse pride in that century streak! There is no way for most of us to fudge the random numbers that come from sports, and yet people still find them to be a fun and rewarding pastime, and build satisfying narratives from the randomness that comes out of them.

    Similarly, when I demanded that we use random results straight in a game of MSH, I was the one who rolled up a practically useless hero (his major power? swimming. he was called The Human Torpedo). Still, I was able to play through events that allowed us to create a fun narrative by playing to my weaknesses, if you see what I mean. My character was one of the more active heroes in that group. Sure, he got hurt. He wasn't very effective. But yet his misadventures added a sense of pathos and humor to the events. Meanwhile, the other, more effective heroes went about solving the problems posed.

    Seemingly boring/un-fun random results are not necessarily so. That's what you lose by trying to erase them. You lose a sense of wonder and serendipity and even humanity, and you reduce the game to little more than dick-waving about who has the "strongest" character. Is it Superman or the Hulk? Who cares?

  50. Faoladh: Wait. The game loses a sense of humanity if, on occasion, the ref decides that droping 13 gnolls on the party for no reason is a bad thing? There's no sense of wonder if the huge red dragon doesn't come out of nowhere for no reason?

    And why does a reduction of the influence of the dice lead to a dick-waving competition between the players?

  51. Uncle Dark: Yes. However, 13 gnolls being dropped on the party for "no" reason is inaccurate. It's up to the Referee to supply a reason, if one turns out to be needed. And huge red dragons don't really care all that much about the tiny things on the ground that they are flying past, but it's a really impressive sight. The dice supply events. It's up to the Referee and players to interpret their meanings.

    "why does a reduction of the influence of the dice lead to a dick-waving competition between the players?"

    I'm actually no longer entirely sure where I was going with that line of argument (something about the failure of human issues causing an increasing reliance on mechanical ones, but the line of thinking eludes me right now), so just disregard it.